What are our obligations to care leavers who lose their own infants and children to the State?

Authors: Professor Karen Broadhurst, Claire Mason and Dr. Stuart Bedston – Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University.

The removal of children, from parents who themselves have been in the care of the state, is a problem that surely warrants far greater attention? Despite the best intentions of our care system in England, a significant percentage of care leavers lose their own children to public care and adoption, compounding painful histories of trauma and loss. As we write, the “Your Family Your Voice Alliance” is promoting an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill[1], which is as follows: 

Insert the following new Clause: 

“Post-removal counselling for parents and legal guardians who are themselves looked after children or care leavers

Where a child is permanently removed from the care of a birth parent or a guardian further to any order made pursuant to:

(a)          section 31 Children Act 1989 (care and supervision orders), or

(b)          section 22 Adoption and Children Act 2002 (placement orders), or

(c)          section 46 Adoption and Children Act 2002 (adoption orders), or

(d)          section 14A Children Act 1989 (special guardianship order)

a local authority must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide a counselling service and commission specialist therapeutic support for the parent or guardian where—

(i)         the parent or guardian is a looked after child, or

(ii)        the parent or guardian is a care leaver.””


In this article, we set out a series of arguments, based on research from our national study of recurrent care proceedings, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, in support of this proposed amendment:

1. New evidence from our Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University clearly evidences the vulnerability of care experienced young women, to court-ordered removal of their own children. When we reviewed a representative sample of court files concerning women who had experienced multiple court proceedings, drawing records from across 56 local authorities, we found that 40% were former care leavers. These young women had troubled care histories characterized by frequent moves and culminating in a period in residential care.

2. We found that 60% of these women had their first child during their teenage years (aged 19 or younger) after having experienced significant levels of abuse and neglect in their own childhood. Our work shows that 66% of the women experienced physical abuse in their childhoods, whilst 64% experienced sexual abuse. Given the women’s complex and traumatic histories, it is of little surprise that many presented with mental health and substance misuse problems in adulthood. Furthermore, domestic violence was a common feature of their adult relationships. Given difficulties in their own informal networks, and their conflicted relationships with the State, many women find it very hard to access help.

3. From interviews with women, who had experienced recurrent care proceedings and who had been in care themselves as children, we learned that they felt their own personal troubled histories were held against them when they became parents. Unlike other young people, their pregnancies were already under the radar of the local authority.

4. The care system aims to help young people prepare for adulthood – yet the issue of parenthood has been insufficiently addressed. Prior to our own work, an absence of research kept hidden the fact that, care experienced youth, represent 40% of the population of women who reappear before the family court. In exposing this relationship, our research raises a fundamental question about the obligations of the State as corporate parent to care experienced youth, who lose their own children to public care. Why should the boundaries of responsibility of the corporate parent, fall short of extending compassionate and effective therapeutic support to care experienced youth who lose their own children to public care?

5. Our study has focused on women with a recurrent care proceedings history. For this particular population, the removal of one child is typically followed by a further pregnancy and a removal at birth. We know from our research evidence, that babies are removed much more quickly from women who have had children previously removed through court order. These women illustrate so clearly the results of a system, which does not routinely provide therapeutic support to women.

6. In emphasizing routine provision, we refer to therapeutic help that is available irrespective of postcode, professional will or innovation. At present we are witnessing groundbreaking innovations at a national and local level. The high profile Pause programme and a number of grassroots projects delivered by local authorities and third sector organisations are all demonstrating the need for skilled therapeutic help to reach the most disadvantaged women. However, we also know that some new projects are already folding because local authority investment in prevention fluctuates in relation to budgetary imperatives. Without statutory mandate, it is likely that this lottery will continue.

[1] Tabled by David Burrowes MP for report stage of the Children and Social Work Bill


Contact: k.broadhurst@lancaster.ac.uk